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From Holey Socks to Vintage Smocks, Clothes Recycling Is Easier Than You Think

You’ve cleared out your closet. You’ve separated garments that spark joy from ones you never touch. You’ve said goodbye to that beloved t-shirt with one too many holes. Now what? 

It’s easy enough to stuff old clothes into trash bags and forget about them, but if you’ve never asked yourself, “Where does this all end up?” or “Is clothes recycling even possible?” these are questions worth considering.

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What happens to our old clothes?

Unfortunately, most old clothing ends up in landfills. This is a problem for a number of reasons, some of which you’ve probably never even thought about.

When clothing breaks down in landfills (and it will eventually) it produces methane, an even worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The EPA reports that landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the US, making landfills a huge contributor to climate change.

Dumping waste in landfills also costs money, with the average fee being $55.36 per ton across the US. That’s a lot of tax dollars literally going to waste. 

Can we recycle old clothes?

Yes! It’s almost hard to believe, but according to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, a whopping 95% of textiles can be recycled.

Even if something is worn-out, torn, or otherwise unwearable, there’s usually a way to make it into something useful. There’s really no excuse *not* to recycle clothing, so it’s sad that 85% ends up in landfills.

What’s the best method of clothes recycling? 

This depends on the condition of the clothes, how much time you want to invest, and whether you want anything out of it (besides the satisfaction that your clothes won’t end up in a landfill). Keep reading to learn which ways are best, which will suffice, and which fall short. 

Donating to a Local Charity

If your trash might be someone else’s treasure, donate your items to a local organization or charity.

Stores like Goodwill, The Salvation Army, Vietnam Veterans of America, and Habitat for Humanity are found nationwide and accept gently used clothing. Even if your items don’t find a second home, they’ll be put to good use.

For Goodwill, items that don’t sell are repurposed into industrial rags or sold to salvage brokers.

If you want to support a local organization, that’s great too! Check out Earth911 and Donation Town to help you locate nearby clothes and textile recycling drop off points and even schedule a free pick-up. Make sure to get a receipt for any donations you make so that they will be tax deductible.

What About Undergarments? 

Big charity stores often don’t want your old undergarments, but there are many other organizations that do.

I Support the Girls collect old bras and underwear for redistribution. Free the Girls gives bras to women who have escaped sex trafficking so they can start their own bra resale business.

Even if your bra isn’t reusable, you can mail it to The Bra Recyclers or find a drop-off point near you.

For old underwear disposal or things no one wants, your best bet is a donation box or bin. Many of these go to for-profit groups or groups that only donate a portion to charity, but if you need to recycle socks with holes in them or old underwear in bad condition, boxes like Planet Aid and USAgain will accept these items as long as they are clean and dry. 

Donating or Trading In at the Store

Many major brands offer a discount for bringing items back for recycling, but if you want to make the most environmentally-conscious clothes recycling decision, you may want to think twice. 

Denim Recycling for Rewards: 

Famous brands such as Levi’s, Madewell, and American Eagle partner with the Blue Jeans Go Green program which turns old jeans into useful items like denim insulation. Levi’s rewards recyclers with 20% off a single item, Madewell with $20 off, and American Eagle with $10 off a new pair.

While this seems to be the best of both worlds (Recycle clothes for money? Why not?) and a good incentive to recycle, the program has its critics.

Jeans don’t wear out easily, and many pairs headed for the shredder are still perfectly good. Furthermore, discounts encourage people to buy new, which isn’t environmentally friendly considering the resources that go into making new jeans

Recycling Clothes for Rewards: 

Brands like Zara and H&M have garment recycling programs that are similarly questionable.

Both will accept clothing of any brand and condition in their stores, and Zara even offers home pick-up for select cities. However, The Guardian calculated that it would take H&M 12 years to use up as much waste as they produce in 48 hours. 

Unless brands are advertising clothing made from recycled fabrics, you can imagine they’re the same. A better initiative is H&M’s rental service which launched at one of their Stockholm locations, but it hasn’t become widespread yet. 

Among major brands, Patagonia is a standout for promoting sustainability without promoting consumption. Not only can you drop off or send any Patagonia product back for recycling, but their Worn Wear site is specifically for trading in and buying used Patagonia items.

Furthermore, they promote keeping their items in use for as long as possible with their Ironclad Guarantee, through which you can get damaged clothes or gear repaired for a reasonable charge. 

Selling Your Clothes

For unique or valuable garments, selling online is a great option. Online thrift store thredUp will price and put your clothes up for sale on their site, and if they sell, you can cash out or get store credit.

Apps like Poshmark, Vinted, and DePop help users sell or trade their items. eBay, Facebook Marketplace, and social media groups are also good choices, though they may take more work.

Since selling your clothes keeps them in use and prevents customers from buying new items, all of these are good choices for the environment too.

Find a full list of online thrift stores near you, here.

Upcycling and Downcycling

Before there was municipal and charitable recycling, there was upcycling and downcycling. Upcycle an old t-shirt into a grocery bag, jeans into a purse, or a sweater into a pillow. You could even save your prettiest fabric scraps and try out Furoshiki gift wrapping!

Downcyle t-shirts into rags or bedding for a pet. With some creativity (or a quick google search) you’ll find that the possibilities for cloth recycling are endless. 

“What will keep my clothes in use the longest?” is a great guiding question when it comes to clothes recycling. Donating, selling, and upcycling are environmentally-friendly choices because they extend the life of your garments. Downcycling and recycling through for-profit boxes come in at a close second. Trade-in schemes are attractive, but unless you are buying clothes made from recycled materials, there are better choices.

However, anything is better than sending them to the landfill. Your clothes may not all be treasure, but recycling gives them a second life and prevents them from becoming trash.